The Cleveland Cavaliers bested the Bullets tonight where the visitors had been strongest in recent games, the back court.
Substitute guards World B. Free and John Bagley led Cleveland with 21 and 18 points, respectively, as the Cavaliers won, 100-93, for their first victory this season against a team with a record of .500 or better.
Gus Williams had 24 for Washington, but the Bullets' guards, who had shot so well in the team's three-game winning streak, were a collective 18 for 46.
The Cavaliers weathered Washington's comeback from 14 points down, 62-48, early in the third quarter.
The Bullets managed to tie the score at 93 with 1:31 remaining on a pair of free throws by Tom McMillen. But Phil Hubbard matched those shots with two of his own 14 seconds later. Bagley added a jumper at the 46-second mark to stretch the Cleveland lead to four, sending the Bullets off in search of three-point field goals. When Jeff Malone missed such an attempt, the Bullets were forced to foul, Roy Hinson making one of two free throws for the final margin.
"What I feared most came to pass," said Bullets Coach Gene Shue. "Layoffs are the worst. We had been shooting so outstandingly, everyone was in a good rhythm . . . then we come in tonight and look like we would never make a basket."
Actually, despite the team's 45 percent mark from the field, Washington had a good chance to win. The game's turning point, however, probably came in the final 30 seconds of the third quarter.
Having cut that 14-point margin to two -- 72-70 after a Darren Daye layin -- the Bullets took possession after a missed shot and went into their one-four offense, with Daye at the point. Moving quickly into a double team, Bagley made a steal and went the length of the court for a layup with 10 seconds remaining.
The Bullets then tried the same play, this time with even more disasterous results. Once again, Bagley made a steal, this time sending the ball ahead to Free. Washington guard Dudley Bradley flicked at the ball, knocking it loose, but Free recovered and buried a three-point shot at the buzzer, moving the Cavs ahead, 77-70.
"That gave us life," said Cleveland Coach George Karl. "We were struggling and they had started to play well. When you're expecting nothing and you get five points, that's always a plus."
Shue agreed. "There's no question that that was the key to the game. It was definitely bad news for us."
The Bullets were in a hole from the start. Forward Cliff Robinson, who might have sparked the team in his first appearance here since being traded from the Cavaliers, didn't make the trip, remaining in Washington with a bruise on the knuckle of his right index finger.
Then the team started slowly, playing the first half as if trying to fight off a collective case of post-holiday blahs and shooting 41 percent for the first two quarters. Starting guards Williams and Malone were the worst offenders, going eight for 24 between them.
That's not to say that the front line could be absolved from fault. In the first period, Cleveland center Melvin Turpin, who was actually the Bullets' first-round pick in last June's draft before being traded for Robinson, scored eight points against Ruland, causing Shue to bench his center.
Ruland came on strong in the second period, scoring 11 points, but the Bullets still trailed, 54-46. Things were even more grim early in the third period, Cleveland expanding its lead behind Hinson and Johnny Davis.
When the Bullets did make their move, more often than not, Free was there to stifle their rush. Troubled in recent weeks by a pulled groin and the adjustment to coming off the bench, the long-time star shone throughout the second half.
"It's different for me coming off the bench but I'm looking at it like I'm a professional and I'll do the job I'm paid to do," said Free.
Shue, who coached Free in Philadelphia and San Diego, was all too familiar with the guard's work. "I thought we did a good job on him in the fourth quarter, but he's gonna do what he did tonight to a lot of people."